Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Parashat Miketz: Yosef’s Egyptian Makeover by Yaakov Bieler

December 20, 2011 by  
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The problem entailed in Pharoah’s making Yosef a ruler over the Egyptians

Taking an individual who comes from humble beginnings as well as from a despised national group and transforming him into someone who others will perceive as capable of leading and ruling, is the challenge confronting Pharoah vis-à-vis Yosef in Parashat Miketz.[1] While Pharoah astutely perceives Yosef’s formidable abilities to administer Egypt during the prophetically predicted famine, he nevertheless has to overcome Yosef’s recent history of being first a Hebrew slave compounded by his then becoming a prison inmate accused and convicted of making overtures towards his master’s wife. Won’t the Egyptians quite naturally be inclined to dismiss any of Yosef’s directives or actions as those of a person who exists at best on the periphery of society and therefore not entitled to rule?

Strategies employed by Pharoah to achieve this aim

The text mentions a number of specific tactics that Pharoah adopts to supply Yosef with a new persona in order to cover-up his immediate past:

Beraishit 41:42-3, 45

1) And Pharoah removed the ring from upon his finger, and placed it on Yosef’s hand;

2) and he dressed him in linen garments;

3) and he placed a golden chain around his neck.

4) And he (Pharoah) caused him (Yosef) to mount the chariot of the second-in-command that he possessed;[2]

5) and they called out before him “Avrech”[3] and he was placed in charge of the entire land of Egypt…

6) And he called Yosef’s name “Tsofnat Pane’ach”;

7) and he gave him Osnat, daughter of Poti Phera, Priest of Ohn for a wife, and Yosef went out over the land of Egypt.

While most of the changes imposed by Pharoah upon Yoseph are essentially external, i.e., matters of dress, ornamentation, public proclamation and transportation, the final two alterations mentioned in the verses cited above focusing upon Yosef’s name and marital status, appear more substantial and existential.

The implications of a name change

Jewish tradition views name changes whereby an individual decides[4] that either he or someone else is to be referred to differently going forward from how he has been known in the past, as extremely meaningful. According to the following Midrash, whether one preserves his name or not is indicative of the degree that one is loyal to his past and to family and cultural tradition, and rejects opportunities to assimilate into the majority society.

VaYikra Rabba 32:5

R. Huna said in the name of R. Kappara: Because of four things were the Jewish people redeemed from Egypt:

1)  They did not change their names,

2)  their language,

3)  they did not speak badly of one another,

and   4)  there was not found among them an individual who engaged insexual immorality.

“They did not change their names”–

Reuven (Beraishit 29:32) and Shimon (Ibid. 33) were their given names, and Reuven  (Shemot 6:14) and Shimon (Ibid. 15) were the names with which they left Egypt.

They did not call Yehuda “Rofeh” (doctor?),[5],[6]

Nor did they call Reuven “Luliani”

Nor Yosef “Lastis”

Nor Binyamin “Aleksandri”…

Whereas VaYikra Rabba emphasizes the positive aspects of preserving one’s given name, the Talmud discusses a context in which changing one’s name reflects positively upon one’s spiritual growth, and the rejection of a life associated with transgression.

Rosh HaShana 16b

R. Yitzchak said: Four things cancel the evil decree against a person (i.e., punishment for his/her iniquities):

1) Charity;

2) Crying out (prayer);

3) Changing one’s name;[7],[8]

and    4) Changing one’s actions.

There are also those who say:

5) Changing one’s location/environment.

In another historical instance related by the Talmud, people cease referring to an individual by his given name as a result of his embarking on a life of iniquity.

Chagiga 14b-15a

The Rabbis taught: Four men entered the “Pardes” (lit. orchard/garden):[9] Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, “Acher” (lit. “the other”, a reference to Elisha ben Avuya who had formerly been a colleague of the other three) and R. Akiva…

Ben Azai looked and died…

Ben Zoma looked and became demented…

Acher” uprooted the “shoots growing from the ground” (a metaphor for detaching himself from Jewish tradition in some fundamental manner).

R. Akiva departed (the Pardes) unscathed…

What does it refer to (i.e., what happened to “Acher”)? He saw that permission was granted to Matatron[10] to sit[11] and write down the merits of Israel.[12]

He (“Acher”) said: It is taught as a tradition that in Heaven there is no sitting, no competition,[13] no back,[14] and no weariness (hence, no need for sitting).[15] Perhaps, God Forbid, there are two deities,[16] as it were…

A “Bat Kol” (a Voice from Heaven) Issued forth and declared: (Yirmiyahu 3:22) “Return, you sinning children—with the exception of ‘Acher!’”[17]

Thereupon he said: Since I have lost the World to Come, let me enjoy the World of the Here-and-Now.

So “Acher” went out and engaged in sin.

He went out, found a prostitute and inquired regarding her services.

She said to him: Are you not Elisha ben Avuya?

But when he tore a radish out of the ground on Shabbat[18] and gave it to her, she said: “This is ‘Acher’ (lit. another, someone else).”

One could suggest that when Pharoah renames Yosef, he is attempting to achieve similar objectives to those reflected in these three sources, i.e., a) he wished to give Yosef either a new name or at least an official title that would obliterate any traces of his Hebrew name associated with his lowly past and his ethnic origins,[19] b) that such a new name would serve to prevent people from dredging up memories of the crime that he had been accused of by Mrs. Potiphar,[20] and c) perhaps such a name/title  would allow him easy entrée into the Egyptian lifestyle that certainly was less restrictive morally and ritually than the manner in which he had lived until this point.

Enhancing Yosef’s status via marriage

Just as significant as Yosef’s name change, is his arranged marriage to Osnat. What was Pharoah hoping additionally to accomplish by means of this act? One relevant issue to Pharoah’s thinking revolves around a debate among Biblical commentators as to whether Osnat’s father, “Poti Phera” (45:41), is identical to “Potiphar”, Yosef’s original master when he first arrives in Egypt (39:1 ff.) Aside from the difference in the form of the name—it first appears as a single word, and later as two words)—the difference in profession, he is first identified as the Head of the Butchers/Executioners, and now as the Priest of Ohn, has to be accounted for if the contention is to be made that they are one and the same individual. RaMBaN suggests the most creative approach to resolving this apparent inconsistency, when he writes that just as Mrs. Potiphar was attracted to Yosef due to his exceptional physical appearance, Mr. Potiphar also made homosexual advances towards him. Rabbinic tradition in Sota 13b and Beraishit Rabba #86 maintains that it was because of these overtures that Potiphar became a “Saris” (impotent)[21],[22]—see 39:1—due to Divine Intervention in order that Yosef would not be attacked.[23],[24] Potiphar was so mortified over what he had attempted to do, that he renounced his former life, including his wife, and became a Priest, in effect his name change constituting another example of the passage in Rosh HaShana listed above, where the penitent identifies himself going forward as “someone else”.

Accepting the premise that Yosef’s first master eventually becomes his father-in-law, why would Pharoah think that this will help solidify Yosef’s ruling position? Chizkuni and Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei HaTosafot maintain that by marrying Potiphar’s daughter, Yosef silences a potential critic. (They obviously would not accept RaMBaN’s contention that Potiphar had become a penitent.) Had Yosef married someone else, either his first master or his master’s wife could have at any time brought up the earlier scandal and undercut Yosef’s authority significantly. However, now that they had the welfare of their daughter to think about they would be far more reticent about revisiting the past. Furthermore, by marrying Osnat, Yosef is tacitly demonstrating that he was innocent of the charges leveled against him by Mrs. Potiphar, who would most certainly not have allowed him to marry her daughter had he actually tried to make advances towards the mother.

However, even if we maintain that Potiphar and Poti Phera are two different people, marrying Osnat is still a shrewd move in terms of helping Yosef in his new political position. Abravanel, a reliable source for gaining insight into how a king might think in light of his extensive experience actually dealing with the likes of the royal houses of Spain, Portugal and Italy, suggests that by marrying Yosef off to an important, high-ranking Egyptian family, his wife’s relatives could be relied upon to give Yosef advice and assistance regarding how to effect the directives that he wished to institute. R. Hirsch, rather than focusing upon the “Protektsia” issue, reflects upon Yosef being married altogether and the effects that such a state will have in terms of his properly ruling, in contrast to his having remained single.

R. S.R. Hirsch on 41:45

…Even today the public are somewhat shy of placing their confidence in a bachelor. Added to this, the task which was to be entrusted to Yosef would be furthered if he himself had a wife and family. If the people agreed to restrict themselves wisely during the seven years of plenty there could be enough for thirty-five years. If senseless squandering took place, death from famine would ensue. Yosef was to exercise this wholesome and necessary control. He would have the most beneficial influence if he, the first in the land, set the example of simple living in his house and family life. But for that a wife and family were necessary. A single man without wife and family is not felt to be so intimately together with the general public at times of stress and anxious worry, but with wife and children, even if he is prince or king, he participates in the trouble of the people.[25]

Changing Yosef’s outwards appearance but not his inner soul and existential identity

It is interesting to reflect upon how one can alter his/her identity by techniques represented in the story of Yosef. Pharoah was obviously successful in helping Yosef gain credibility and authority to the point where he was able to guide Egypt through difficult times, while at the same time furthering HaShem’s Grand Plan for Jewish history and the redemption of His People. Perhaps the most telling phrase of this entire section of the story of Yosef is the end of 41:45, where after all that takes place and the changes that are made, in the final analysis, “…VaYetzei Yosef Al Eretz Mitzrayim”, or as RaShI puts it in his comment to Shemot 1:5, “And all of Yaakov’s offspring were 70 souls and Yosef was in Egypt”—“…This is to make known the righteousness of Yosef; he is Yosef who shepherded his father’s flocks; he is Yosef who was in Egypt, was made king and maintained his righteousness throughout.” Yosef may have looked different and he may have traveled in different circles, but in the final analysis, Yosef remained the same.


[1] A somewhat parallel situation is that of Moshe at the beginning of Shemot. Whereas Yosef seems to have been born to lead and encouraged by his father Yaakov to feel superior to his siblings—this was the very thing that Yosef’s brothers seemed to most resent about him with respect to the manner in which their younger brother judged their actions, communicated his dreams, and flaunted the special coat that his father gave him—and the challenge for Pharoah was to convince the Egyptian people to recognize and accept Yosef’s newly-granted authority, Moshe was in need of a different type of preparation for leadership. Ibn Ezra imagines that had Moshe actually grown up in Amram’s and Yocheved’s home, having served as a slave would have mitigated against his ability to assume the position of the leader of the Jewish people.

Ibn Ezra on Shemot 2:3

…And the plans of HaShem Run deep, and who is able to discern their Foundations?
And He Alone Directs His Plans. Perhaps HaShem Made it come about that Moshe would be raised in the palace of Pharoah, in order that his soul would rise to a high level for educational purposes and accustoming him to the outlook of royalty, and avoiding his being lowly and accustomed to servitude. Consider that he killed the Egyptian when Moshe perceived that he was engaged in immoral violence. He also saved the Moabite shepherdesses from the shepherds who were treating them violently, while they were attempting to water their flocks with the water that they had drawn. Furthermore, if he had grown up among his brethren, and they would have been familiar with him from his youth, they would not have feared him, because they would have considered him one of them.

[2] The components of Yosef’s external appearance very much parallel what Achashveirosh does on behalf of Mordechai when the king decides to reward his subject for having saved his life from the hands of two assassins:

Esther 6:8-9

1) (clothing) Let there be brought royal garments that the king has worn;

2) (transportation) And a horse that the king has ridden upon;

3) (ornamentation) And let a royal crown be placed upon his head…

4) (proclamation)…And let there be called before him, “This is what is done on behalf of a person whom the king wishes to honor.”

[3] The term is difficult to understand. The general connotation is a summons for obeisance. Among the hypotheses for its particular meaning are: a) father to the king; b) a father in wisdom but soft/young in years; c) someone to whom everyone must feel subjugated; d) an expression calling upon all those present to bow down; e) an individual bringing blessing into the midst of the land.

[4] Obviously when HaShem Changes someone’s name, as in the cases of Avraham (Beraishit 17:5), Sara (Ibid. 15) and Yaakov (Ibid. 32:29; 35:10), there is profound significance. This essay is more concerned about name changes that come about purely by human choice.

[5] This specific example suggests that not only an actual name change, but even when a person insists upon being known by a particular title, could constitute a denial of the origins of one’s identity. However most commentaries understand this word as a Latin translation of the Hebrew name, in keeping with the other examples that are given in the Midrash. See the next footnote.

[6] While some commentators on the Midrash suggest connections between Yehuda and “Rofeh” and Reuven and “Luliani”, Eitz Yosef reverses these two examples, i.e., Reuven is connected with “Rofeh” or “Rufus”, and Yehuda with “Lulianus”. The commentator speculates that “Rofeh” might be a shortened version of Reuven, or, in my opinion more interestingly, the Latin term based upon the color of the precious stone in the High Priest’s breastplate representing this particular tribe—a RUBY (perhaps the Midrash’s example should then be read “Ropeh”? ) (See Shemot 28:17; 39:10). If the latter is the case, then the nickname that is given is quite sophisticated Jewishly, but nevertheless an obliteration of the original Hebrew given name which in turn could lead to loss of Jewish identity and assimilation. Several examples that exchange Hebrew for Yiddish are still extent, as “Dov Baer”, “Zev Volf” and “Tzvi Hirsch”. However, since both names are often used together, and Yiddish is clearly a Jewish language, the same concerns are probably not relevant. The commentator adds in a similar vein that “Lulianus” is Latin for lion, a reference to the tribe of Yehuda’s association with lions in Yaakov’s blessing to the tribe’s progenitor in Beraishit 49:9.

[7] It is interesting to note that when the Talmud quotes R. Yitzchak’s proof text for the efficaciousness of changing one’s name in terms of the process of repentance, it is Beraishit 17:15—“As for Sarai your wife, you shall no longer call her Sarai, but Sara will be her name. And I will Bless her and cause her to conceive a child with you.” While it could be argued that just as the change in Sara’s name indicates a change in her status, going from one who objectively would remain childless to one who had the ability to conceive, nevertheless, such a verse implies a certain supernatural aspect to the name change, i.e., without God Standing behind such a change, it would not reflect anything different about the individual. R. Yitzchak’s overall comment appears to emphasize that which is incumbent upon an individual in order to repent, as opposed to what will be Divinely Done to someone in order to catalyze a change in his/her status. Should one conclude that R. Yitzchak is subtly suggesting that repentance can only take place with Divine Assistance, as indicated by Yoma 38b:

Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of: (Mishlei 3:34) “If it concerneth the scorners He Scorneth them, but unto the humble He Giveth grace”? i.e., if a man comes to defile himself, the doors are opened to him, but if he comes to purify himself, he is helped. In the school of R. Ishmael it was taught: It is as when a man sells naphtha and balm : If [a purchaser] comes to measure naphtha, he [the shopkeeper] says to him: Measure it out for yourself; but to one who would measure out balm he says: Wait, till I measure together with you, so that both I and you, may become perfumed.

[8] RITVA explains why a name change is important to being a “Ba’al Teshuva” (a penitent):

Changing one’s name reflects that he is no longer the individual who regularly committed transgressions in order that people will not remember him  for evil (thinking of this person’s name should not automatically cause people to curse or recall his misdeeds). Furthermore, the individual by means of the name change, is able to free himself from the horoscope that was associated with his past, as in the case of Avraham (the name changes of Avraham and Sara symbolized that they were no longer limited by being childless, as the astrological readings for Avram and Sarai had seemed to indicate).

[9] Clearly “Pardes” is a metaphor. However, it is unclear as to what it truly means. Some claim they explored mystical ideas; others ideas in philosophy and theology.

[10] The chief angel of God, Given maximum responsibility of all of the Heavenly Hosts. An Aggadic view cited in Bava Batra 121b is that Matatron originally was Chanoch, who rather than dying, was “Taken” by God—see Beraishit 5:24.

[11] Angels are always depicted as standing. Therefore, if Matatron is sitting, he must have been Given some extraordinary status vis-à-vis HaShem, or he must be something comparable to God Himself, if that were possible. This latter conclusion was the one drawn by “Acher”, leading to his apostasy.

[12] This is a reference to what Rosh HaShana 32b states takes place each Rosh HaShana, when the Books of Life and Death are open, and each person is inscribed in one or the other for the coming year.

[13] All angels should be given the same privileges and abilities. If one angel stands out from the rest,
Acher” questions whether he may be more than a mere angel.

[14] One should only be able to see the faces of the angels, not their backs. Seeing Matatron’s back again leads “Acher” to the conclusion that he was inappropriately greater than the rest of the angels. See for e.g., Shemot 34:33.

[15] If sitting is unnecessary in terms of relieving a tired feeling because the Heavenly Host was never supposed to tire, then this type of body language is symbolic of status, and places the sitter in a superior position as compared to those who are required to stand, similar to a king who sits on a throne, while his subjects are made to stand out of deference to him.

[16] When considering the historical context during which “Acher” lived, i.e., the Roman occupation of Palestine and the cruel persecution of Jews and Judaism, one can understand how he might have employed the belief in dualism to address the most difficult of theological problems, namely theodicy or “Tzaddik VeRa Lo” (why do bad things happen to a righteous person?)

[17] I have always wondered whether there actually was such a “Bat Kol”, or whether this was a figment of “Acher”’s imagination, arising from either his conviction that he could not resume his traditional beliefs once again, or a justification for not attempting to do so.

[18] Thereby deliberately violating the Primary Category of “Melacha” (physical creative activity) of “Kotzer” (harvesting), and demonstrating that he is not observant of Jewish law.

[19] There is a significant dispute among the Biblical commentators regarding whether “Tzophnat Pa’aneach” is Hebrew or Egyptian. While the Targumim, RaShI, RaMBaN, Ibn Kaspi and NeTzIV maintain that the term was Hebrew, RaShBaM, Bechor Shor, Abrabanel, Chatam Sopher, ShaDaL and R. Hirsch insist that it is Egyptian. (ShaDaL claims that it means “Hieronymus, savior of the world”!) Naturally from the point of view of giving Yosef a “new identity”, it would make more sense for him to now be referred to in Egyptian. Chatam Sofer even mentions that had Yosef been given a Hebrew title, this would have aroused the suspicions of his brothers when they first come to Egypt, and the entire trial to which they are subjected could never have been administered. Consequently, it was “Min HaShamayim” (lit. from Heaven, i.e., by Divine Decree) that Pharoah would choose to refer to his new second-in-command in Egyptian. RaMBaN takes a counter view when he contends that it would be that much more honor for Yosef for him to be known by a Hebrew title, indicating his acceptance into the ruling Egyptian classes, despite his Hebrew origins. Ibn Ezra reflects a historical dilemma when he states that if the term is a translation of the Egyptian into Hebrew, we don’t know what Yosef was actually called by Pharoah, and if these words are in fact Egyptian, then we don’t really know what they mean, since we cannot expect that ancient Egyptian and Hebrew would necessarily share cognates. Perhaps this is why Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei Tosafot resorts to looking at these two words as an acronym (“Tzadik Pitpeit Neged Ta’avato Potiphar Ina Nafsho Chinam” [a righteous individual successfully struggles against his Evil Inclination; Potiphar afflicted him for no reason]) while Ba’al HaTurim approaches their meaning via “Gimatria” (“Tzadee”=90; “Peh”=80; “Nun”=50; “Taf”=400; “Peh”=80; “Ayin”=70; “Nun”=50; “Chet”=8 = 828 which is equivalent to “Megaleh Nistarim” [who reveals that which is hidden] “Mem”=40; “Gimel”=3; “Lamed”=30; “Heh”=5; “Nun”=50; “Samech”=60; “Taf”=400; “Reish”=200; “Mem”=40 = 828. [Purists will object to the latter computation “working” only when the word “Nistarim” is written “Chaser”, i.e., in a reduced form, lacking a “Yud” that would ordinarily come between the “Reish” and the “MeM” and would then add another 10 to the total.])

A similar problem exists with respect to Moshe’s name in Shemot 2:10, i.e., although the Bible offers an interpretation for the name that makes sense in Hebrew—“Min HaMayim Mishiteihu” (from the water I drew him out), there are many commentators who claim that the name is actually an Egyptian one, and that the Bible is simply making a pun when it interprets “Moshe” through a Hebrew lense. On the one hand, Pharoah’s daughter, realizing that he was a Jewish child may have wanted to honor his origins by actually giving him a Hebrew name, in terms of his being able to pass relatively unnoticed growing up in the royal palace until the day that he goes out and kills the Egyptian taskmaster, it would make more sense that he had an actual Egyptian name. Of course, a middle course could maintain that Bat Pharoah’s name for the foundling was one that she used with him privately, and that in public he had an actual Egyptian name.

[20] As opposed to only covering up past shortcomings, MaLBIM on 41:45 suggests that Pharoah was positively advertising to all that Yosef was a “man of God” and therefore either guiltless of the accusations or a true penitent:

“…He (Yosef) reveals hidden secrets (“Tzophnat”—that which is “Tzaphun”, hidden; “Pa’aneach”—to decode, reveal) by means of the Spirit of God which is upon him. He has within him a Divine Spirit. For this reason he gave to him the daughter of the High Priest (Osnat bat Potiphar Kohen Ohn) because in this manner everyone would believe that he is a man of God…”

[21] The term “Saris” can also be interpreted as meaning a servant/courtier. It is likely that in royal courts where there were extensive harems, a requirement for a man to serve in such an environment was that he would undergo treatment or an operation that would render him impotent. However, it is not necessary to assume that this was always the case.

[22] If Potiphar and Poti Phera are one and the same, and if “Saris” suggests impotence, then in order for Osnat to actually be his biological daughter—naturally if she were adopted as maintained by some sources in ChaZaL, there is no problem—he came to this state later in life.

The assumption that Osnat in fact was a foundling left on the doorstep of Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar, is utilized by ChaZaL in order to avoid another issue, i.e., did Yoseph marry an Egyptian woman? Were Osnat in fact the daughter of Dina and Shechem who was abandoned in Egypt, then Yosef does in fact marry someone other than a Canaanite or Egyptian. Although in two earlier essays on Parashat VaYeishev (http://www.kmsynagogue.org/RabbiSpeeches/5764/VaYeshev.html http://www.kmsynagogue.org/RabbiSpeeches/5766/VaYeshev2.html ) the difficulty of Yaakov’s sons apparently marrying Canaanite women was discussed, there may have been greater objections to someone marrying an Egyptian instead of a Canaanite (although according to those who claim that Sara gave Hagar to Avraham as an actual wife, as well as the view that Ketura was Hagar, Avraham marries an Egyptian!) Or perhaps because of Yosef’s being known as “Yosef HaTzaddik” (Yosef the righteous)—see http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashat-vayeishev-a-powerful-adolescent-commitment-to-righteousness-by-yaakov-bieler/ –a higher level of conduct is expected of him than of the rest of the brothers.

[23] The paradigm for such an assertion is what happens to Pharoah and Avimelech when they attempt to be intimate with Sara in Beraishit 12:17 and 20:4, 7, 17, 18.

[24] It is clear that Yosef spending time in prison is part of the Divine Plan, in order that he is eventually noticed by Pharoah and given the opportunity to prepare Egypt for the arrival of the rest of his family. Perhaps the reason why Yosef’s incarceration comes as a result of his resisting Mrs. Potiphar’s advances, rather than those of her husband, is because Mr. Potiphar was embarrassed to publicly discuss this matter in light of his having brought Yosef into his home, whereas Mrs. Potiphar could more virtuously maintain that she was an innocent victim of an unprovoked attack.

[25] See RaShI on 41:50, based upon Ta’anit 11a. R. Hirsch’s commentary can also be used to explain the Halacha of the requirement for a “Shliach Tzibur” (the individual who leads prayers) during the “Yomim Noraim” (the days of Awe, i.e., Rosh HaShana and Yom HaKippurim) appearing in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 581:1.

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